Thursday, July 25, 2013

Exhaustion Has Set In

Thursday, July 25th.  It is 7:44 and I am lodged in a hostel in Banff, Canada.  A series of rainstorms are running through, accompanied by some hail (more anecdotal evidence that when it rains at higher altitudes, it hails).  I have just passed the one month mark in this journey, and combining that fact with the fact that I'm feeling a little homesick, it seems a good time to take stock on where I've been and where I go next.

Since June 24th, I have spent 29 nights (including tonight) on the road.  In the middle of that were three nights at home, though I was packing and moving during that time and the third night was spent on an extra mattress in the basement of my Robbinsdale townhouse, so it was more like traveling than not.

I have spent 6 nights in a dorm, 4 nights in hotels, 8 nights with 3 different hosts, 2 nights in a yurt, and 9 nights in campsites, and one night in a hostel (which is very hotel like).

I have traveled 8,358 miles, and am currently 1,320 miles from home.

A few observations that may sound like complaints...
  • My car smells like a wide range of untraceable after effects from using it as a bedroom, closet, office, car, refrigerator and pantry...and it needs an oil change.
  • My socks are not as white as they were when I started.
  • My room is hot and since it's a hostel there is no air conditioning.   The clerk told me not to worry because it was going to get down to the single digits...which I now realize means it's going to get below 50 degrees fahrenheit (he, being Canadian, meant single digits Celcius).  
  • I have lost my amazement with the wonders of nature.  There are a lot of roaring streams plunging through dramatic canyons out there and I have seen quite a few...they are starting to look alike. (Having said that, Glacier was super cool...see below.)
  • I don't actually like camping by myself.  Most of the things you do at a campsite are more interesting if you are doing them with or for someone else.  By myself I'm just as happy sleeping at a rest stop on the least that way I don't smell like campfire -- which was amusing for a while but is no longer able to generate a chortle of any kind.
  • My Tevas developed an ungodly odor after using them to swim yesterday.  Perhaps it's just sweat but up to the point I realized what smelled and took them out of the car, I was thinking that something oddly like a salty nacho had died in my car.
  • The national parks (here and in the US) are crazy busy with people.  Its like driving in Manhattan.  Worse since it's a park...
  • I have no idea where my mail is going (could be at Martin's, could be at my new place...really not sure.)  Not that I really get any mail, but it's unsettling.
  • Every time I spend any money I get queasy.  
Right this second I want nothing more than to get a good nights sleep, wave at Banff National Park and head for home.  I could be there in about twenty hours.

On the other hand...

  • I love getting up in the morning early and heading out to see or do something new.
  • I have been getting exercise every day.
  • Every day I talk to someone I don't know and share experiences around traveling.
  • I created this time...this space...for this purpose.  It's not a vacation and it's not necessarily supposed to be easy.
  • I love to drive.
  • I love choosing what I am going to do each day.  (Choice?  See previous comments about "The Social Animal" and perhaps more tomorrow.)
  • I love writing about what I do each day.  
  • I am knocking off places I want to see someday at a prodigious rate.
  • I am enjoying taking pictures, though sometimes I wonder if a better camera would be useful given my essential tremor.
  • If I went home early, what would I do?  Seriously.
  • It's kind of cool to sleep in the car.
  • I really like cooking a steak on a fire pit.
  • Jumping into a cold lake after a good hike is a special kind of euphoria.
  • I miss my kids and my cat (this is in the list of good things for a reason).
  • Canadian currency is cool looking.
Okay, time to get the narrative from yesterday and today posted, and then tomorrow morning I'll finish this reflection on what's working and what isn't in this journey.  Time to recalculate the framework.  Meanwhile...

Yesterday was a very different day from Tuesday.  After doing my morning upload in Helena, I headed up the road toward Glacier as planned.  The stretch of country between Helena and Browning, following I15, 287 and 89, is starkly isolated.  Miles roll by without any sign of life, commercial or residential.  Fortunately, we seem to have left the worst of the Wyoming Sage behind and much of the land was some variation of green.  The Rocky Mountains were visible off to the west throughout the drive, and to the east were lesser, unnamed ridges, so that there was a sense of being tucked into an ongoing series of valleys.  For the most part, I was crossing rivers that were flowing out of the Rockies to the west, though initially I was running parallel to the Missouri (at a bit of a distance).   About two-thirds of the way through the journey there was an amusing sign which announed, "Rocky Mountains".  Apparently, this was the official spot where you were to take note of them.

A highlight of the drive was the small town of Choteau, which had a unique street design such that when I entered the town on 287 the road flowed into a traffic circle that surrounded their quaint little court house like a moat.  The town hosts the intersection of highways 287 and 89, so visitors make their choice as they revolve around the courthouse.  When I first entered town I observed three teenagers walking toward the courthouse and it occurred to me that it would be hard to imagine a small town life that was more stereotypical of small town life.  Enough folks to sustain a little main street activity, a courthouse, and nothing except your little small town for many, many miles.  There was just enough activity targeted at travelers to Glacier to sustain some quaint shops and eateries, but not enough to make the place feel overwhelmingly ticky-tacky.  Definitely a great place to stop.

Browning, on the other hand, left nothing to recommend it, and I quickly passed through on my way to East Glacier.  I incorrectly assumed that the park entrance was in the town of East Glacier Park, and instead found myself on the road that runs along the southern border of the park without actually entering it.  It turned out to be a really scenic drive, and when I figured out what was happening I surmised that it would be better for me to enter the park from the west and tour through to the east so I continued on my way.

Highway 2, which runs along the southern end of glacier from East Glacier Park to West Glacier, is bordered by the national park on the north and national forests on the south.  Amtrak shares this route, and for much of it you are following the middle fork of the Flathead River.  There were several national forest campgrounds in the east section of the drive, but for the western two-thirds there were no organized national forest campgrounds.  There were a number of access roads that may have supported dispersed camping.  Toward the end of this drive there were lots of river rafting franchises and it looked like a great place to do some rafting. 

The gateway area to the park sports a very swank visitor center for folks interested in traveling to Canada, specifically Alberta.  It was a bit of a museum as well as an information hub, and the pleasant young lady at the counter gave me all kinds of useful information about traveling from Glacier to Banff as well as info about camping in Canada and then how to get to Vancouver from Banff.  The information center for Glacier was smaller, more crowded, and inadequately staffed.  The several folks there were doing yeoman’s service, but the contrast between what was being funded by Canada and what was being funded by the US government was striking.  Still, there was a handy computer driven video monitor with great status information about the park campgrounds and I quickly puzzled out the information I needed and made a hasty exit. 

I went directly to the Fish Lake Campground, snagged one of the three remaining sites (out of 179) and paid my $23 camping fee.  I have a table, a fire pit, and two trees situated in a way that allows me to test out my hammock.  The site is still available because I am practically falling onto the campground road as I sit in my camp chair, but since I’m sleeping in my car it’s all good.

So, by 1:30 today I had a campsite and was ready to relax a bit.  I set out along the lake for an easy hike that included a well marked scenic trail complete with color trail guide (which you could then return to its little metal box) and after my hike I changed into my swim shorts and eased into the crystal clear glacial waters of Fish Lake.  I had anticipated it being a very short swim, what with the temperature implications of the word “glacial” but I was pleasantly surprised by how effectively the water was warmed in the shallows of the lake.  The effect was to have a very warm flow of water floating over a crisp and bracing colder flow below.  If you floated on your back, it was all warm, and if you dove under it was completely refreshing.  Perfection.  With small rocks and sand as the surface for the beach and shore bottom, it was one of the best lake swimming spots I’ve experienced.

Refreshed and relaxed, I then spent a good chunk of time looking over the route I will take across Canada and then reflecting on what I will do after I pass through Seattle.  At that point I’ll have two competing options, and I don’t think I can do both of them.  Option one is to drive down to the Columbia River Gorge and trace the Lewis and Clark journey from that point all the way back to North Dakota, at which point I am on the final leg home.  Option two is to go down the coast to the Redwood National Park and then head toward Zion National Park in Utah. 

The advantage to the first route is that I have an interest in the historical topic and would enjoy doing this route while reviewing some of the Lewis journals.  Also, this would get me home quicker…which may be something I desire by this point in the journey.

The advantage to the second route is that it would bring me through some spectacular areas that I have never been to before.  It covers more miles than the other approach, and once I get through Utah I would probably just head for home as quickly as possible.

I am here in Glacier on the 24th and 25th, and I think I’ll probably reach Seattle by the 30th, so there will be plenty of time to do whatever I prefer…it will mostly depend on how much energy I have.  (I wrote this last night, and my turmoil around this question and the question of what to do now simply built throughout the day.  Now that my clothes are clean and I've had a shower, I'm ready to get some sleep and think on it...first, though, the events of today!)

I woke up at seven, and in the fashion that I have come to enjoy, was in the driver's seat and headed for the first adventure of the day within less than ten minutes.  I drove up to Avalanche Creek, where there is a hike of slightly more than two miles up to Avalanche Lake.  It was supposed to be worth the hike, and hiking is what you do at Glacier, and it would get me away from the crowds, and it had a vertical rise of 500 feet which is good exercise, so off I went.

The hike moves up the creek through a forest of cedar trees.  For the first third of a mile you are on a well developed loop with no vertical, then the actual hike to the lake begins, with the path initially following the creek but then wandering off to the right away from the creek and through the woods over the canyon.  It took a little over an hour to get to the lake.  A couple was hiking up about the same time as I was, and on the way we encountered two or three people who had gone up earlier and were on their way down...but otherwise it was pretty quiet.  I had been prepared for some crowds as one of my campground neighbors said that they had gotten to the trailhead at nine on Wednesday and couldn't find a parking spot.  
Fortunately, since I was there by 7:20, I had no problem.  The lake was not terribly large, but you could see the water falling down the far cliffs -- runoff from snow melt that sits with a glacier up above the lake.  I chatted with my hiking companions about places they had been and they commented that Glacier was one of their favorite places.  He also suggested the golf course at the hotel was one of the best, so I made a note to check that out since it was going to be a hotel night when I got to Banff.  I took some pictures, watched the sun rising on the valley walls, and then headed back down.  Walking down the path was a whole lot easier than walking up, but it was not a difficult hike either way.  I met a lot of people who were coming up as I was going down, and since they were more than willing to pause in their journey up the mountain, I chatted with several about the park and traveling.

When I got back to the car, I continued on the Going To The Sun road which leads up to Logan Pass.  There was enough traffic by this point that stopping anywhere except for a quick turnout for a picture was completely unmanageable.  People were everywhere.  Having said that, the drive up and over
Logan Pass is extraordinary.  Although I had become a little ho-hum about mountains by that time, I was awed by the vistas encountered as the narrow road climbed up through the glacial mountains.  In my opinion, the west end of the road is the best, so if you have a choice, start at West Glacier and follow the road through the park from west to east.

Once I was out of Glacier, I headed north until I encountered the US/Canadian border.  It took about thirty minutes to get through the line at the border.  I hadn't really thought about the possibility of crossing the border being difficult.  After all, it's the US and Canada...what the hell would anyone possibly want to smuggle from one place to the other?  However, as I realized that they were taking about five minutes or more with each car, and as I got closer I realized that they had pulled a young couple with a teenager out of the line and were searching their van and belongings...and I started to wonder.  It didn't take long to get through when it was my turn, and the border guard was kind of funny.  He asked me what my profession was, and I said I was in education but was going back to grad school...and that was how I was traveling.  His immediate response was to respond wryly, "Getting out of your comfort zone, aren't you?"  Which in retrospect was quite pithy since I am all about examining my comfort zone tonight.  He also asked me if I had cash in excess of ten thousand dollars, to which I laughed and he beat me to the punch line, "oh, right, grad school."

One other thing about the border.  The picture I took includes the long straight line of empty land that is created by the policy of having a cleared space on either side of the official international border line.  It's a bit faint, but in the picture it runs off into the distance just to the right of the concrete marker.  Doug Freeman linked to a funny video about this line that is worth checking out if you haven't seen it.

The drive to Banff in Canada was uneventful.  Two things I noticed.  One is that the roads in Canada, where possible, are unbelievably straight.  At least highway 6 and 22 is really straight.  Of course, at times it has to go around a larger hill or turn in a town, but otherwise it seems like they rarely need to worry about going around anything else. The other thing noticeable was how green it was.  The hills were gently rolling at first, with long vistas, then the hills became more noticeable until the area was quite mountainous as you turned away from Calgary toward Banff.  Throughout this drive the Rocky Mountains were in sight to the west.  The fields were green with grass and a wide assortment of trees were visible.

The transition to metric and Canadian currency was an amusement.  The speed limit signs simply say, "Maximum ##" without reference to mph or km/h (until finally I saw km/h on a sign on the transCanadian).  Because the first speed limit sign said only, "Maximum 50" I wasn't sure which measurement this was.  50 in km/h is crazy slow, and the road was a highway.  For miles the highest it got was I was starting to think it was mph when we suddenly left the national park area and it immediately jumped to 80 and was 100 for most of the rest of the drive.  Clearly km/h.  For currency, I figured out the exchange rate by giving a clerk at the convenience store a five dollar bill, for which I received credit for $4.75...apparently we get 95 cents on the Canadian dollar.  I am collecting Canadian coins and bills so that I can purchase things without being an annoyance.

The other amusing thing about Canada is that when you approach a major intersection of roads there is usually a sign saying, "Important Intersection Ahead".  These are high value intersections.

I arrived in Banff and found the visitors center, where I got some basic information...the most important of which was the location of the nearest Starbucks so I could get online and check out prices for hotels.  Because of the suggestion I had gotten earlier, I was interested in the nice hotel with the golf course, but this same gentlemen had described Banff as very "toney"...which is another word like Tommy Krueger's boojey...only even more so.  He was quite right, Banff is very upscale and the hotel I was interested in was $375 per night...not so much my price range.  I found the listing for the local hostel that I had passed on the way in, and discovered that I could get a private room for under a hundred here I am.

All in all I think I need a break.  So tomorrow morning I am going to sleep late, maybe get this room for a second night, maybe not, maybe, maybe, maybe...but in any case I don't think I'm going to drive anywhere tomorrow.  Maybe I'll find the gondola ride up the mountain, but otherwise I am going to settle in, take stock, do some writing, and make a plan that feels good.

Time to sleep.

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